Gabriel Sunday is all over his new series Dope State, but at first glance, you’d be hard-pressed to see where.
It’s not because Sunday doesn’t work hard, but rather precisely because he does. Like Tracey Ullman and countless chameleonic sketch comedy actors before him, Sunday disappears into the multitude of characters he portrays in the comedic mockumentary series that pokes fun at all levels of California’s cannabis culture. The show features a host of guest stars in each of its six episodes, from Dan Harmon and the Lucas Brothers to Sam Jay and Adrian Grenier.
Grenier, who is best known for breaking teen hearts in '90s movies and bro hearts in Entourage, said of his role in Dope State: “My character is a Silicon Valley innovator, a cannabis culture business magnate bro destined to revolutionize an industry—but really he’s concocting a plan for world domination. Gabe’s characters and the world he’s building are wild, but it feels grounded to me. Yes, there are robot weed spiders in this show, but I’ve met a lot of folks in the cannabis industry, and it’s not as far from reality as you’d think. This is a boom crop, and I have no doubt that psychoactive spider tech, or something just as ridiculous, is around the corner.”
PRØHBTD caught up with the show’s creator, director, co-writer and star as he traveled around San Francisco ahead of the show’s premiere. Sunday told us about his many inspirations for the series, which became a love letter to his home state of California and all of its hazy, crazy residents.
Catch the exclusive launch of Dope State, presented by PRØHBTD, Route One Entertainment, Starburns Industries and The Sunday Show, on Pluto TV's cannabis-inspired channel, THC, on 4/20 at 4:20 p.m. ET/PT.
Was there any experience in particular that you had in the California cannabis industry that inspired the show?
I grew up around the industry of pot. [As a kid in California,] you either knew someone who was growing it or dealing it or, you know, smoking it. I definitely remember knowing that a few of my favorite adults grew pot and [later] realizing that they couldn't do it anymore—like they got pushed out of the industry, you know, needed different permits or just weren't allowed to grow anymore. I remember being a little heartbroken that that was the case.
It was so normalized for me—cannabis, in general, was such an ingrained part of my experience growing up. I definitely remember going to the Midwest at a certain point and realizing, “Oh, not everybody smokes weed. It isn't just on the table like salt, pepper and a thing of weed.” That it’s not a normal thing everywhere.
So one of my first experiences was recognizing the culture shock of how ingrained it was in California culture, and then also realizing as I got older that it's a very powerful drug. It's supernormal in California to just pass a pipe around and shit, and then [eventually] you’re just like, “Wow, this is a really heavy drug.”
Which of the many characters in Dope State did you come up with first?
The lovable bro is a type of character that you can find all over the planet, but there’s this really specific bro that I remember meeting as a kid. My sister went to Chico State, and I knew these bros who were kind of—they were intense. They partied really hard. They always had, like, red sunburns because they were passed out down by the river for the weekend. These guys, they scared me at first, but then they had these super good intentions and that hippie love, that kind of hippie vibe [that] runs through a lot of different characters around California. I remember finding it funny that bro-y bros could also be loveable.
I grew up around a lot of those characters: the dispensary owner, the white girl rapper. I remember seeing a few examples of that in LA, like there's a handful of those white girl rappers who seemingly appropriate black culture for their brands. They, you know, say they’re from Oakland but really they’re from Piedmont.
What inspired the Tyler Gopnik pot journalist character?
I've seen a lot of weed content, and there seems to be this new genre popping up. Documentaries have been around for a while, but there hasn't always been this roaming pot journalist character who tends to come out for places like Vice or BuzzFeed. These independent journalists who—maybe you question their training a little bit. They're just always high, you know? They are [still] journalists on the ground doing reports, but they seem to somehow get involved in their stories pretty often, smoking and all that. [The character came from] the idea of like, let me be a journalist who's not only getting high with his subjects, but maybe also crossing some other boundaries that aren't exactly appropriate.
What was the process like of going from making the shorts that you were working on before this to making a series?
I've long been a part of making features, music videos, shorts, commercials—but always from an independent place. So, for me, the run time was the [main] difference. The format was interesting because you get to grow with the characters, and there is this kind of open-ended possibility where you can take the characters anywhere or [even] decide to just kill off a character if you got sick of him.
The show was still made with an independent spirit: The towns that we [shot in] came in because they either cared about cannabis or they liked being able to poke fun at it. It was pretty delightful. I grew up in California, so we were able to go to all these different places from Humboldt to Silicon Valley to San Francisco and Los Angeles. We moved all around and shot it like a Vice documentary. Whenever we would get somewhere, we were always connected to someone who could help us get onto a pot farm or find this location or that.
The show is a tribute to California, and we couldn't have made it without all of the people here helping us, which was great.
Was Dope State mainly improvised or scripted?
It was a mixture of both. Dan Harmon did a ton of improv [so] it would just depend. Some sequences, when they were VFX heavy, we would script them out but a lot of it was improvised.
We would start filming with a character and then we'd watch the edits and we would decide where to take that character based off of what we thought was interesting. So it was not a normal process of getting scripts approved or anything like that. We could kind of take it in any direction we wanted to based off of where the characters could go.
One of the characters we had, he's the only anti-pot character, and partway through filming we were watching the first edits of the episodes and we all decided that he was probably a psychopath. And we were able to, like a documentary, see something in the character and then shoot more to elaborate on it. It was pretty interesting.
I saw that you made a film that followed hippie comedian/activist Wavy Gravy on the road. Did your time with him and people like that influence any of the show?
Absolutely. I grew up worshipping sixties counterculture, spending my suburban summers at Camp Winnarainbow out at the hog farm. I grew up being around true hippie Californians and that definitely shaped my roots to some degree. I'm really excited for them to see the show. I think they're going to get a kick out of it.
California has everything: It's got hippies, it's got rednecks, it's got desert people. It kind of brings you every single culture in the United States all together. I grew up obsessed with traveling around and meeting people from different backgrounds, and that really came out in the show. If it wasn't going to be weed, it would probably be something else—food, culinary culture in California. I just—I'm kind of in love with the state.
So it was a means to an end, the focus on the fact that people are really fascinated by cannabis now, as opposed to being an inherent interest?
I mean, I love weed culture, and I love weed. I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with the drug itself, but the people around it—especially people who have been cultivating and growing it for decades—they fascinate me. I love them, but I also enjoy poking fun at them.
A big part of the industry also includes pot enthusiasts who see it as an end-all, a one-stop solution to everything, and they don't stop talking about it. I don't believe it is the fix to everything in life, to every ailment, but I do think it is a bit of a miracle drug.
The cannabis industry, like most industries, can get up its own ass sometimes, and I think that's really funny: the whole rebranding of the industry and making pot this new, sexy, sleek miracle drug for everyone. All of a sudden, there are all these new people getting in the game and making it a multi-billion dollar industry and leaving behind all the people who fought for it for decades and went to prison for it. We're definitely leaving out a huge group of people who built this industry. Some of them served decades in prison, and I think those people should be supported as well.
Charlie Tetiyevsky is a writer and editor based in New York City. Find them on Twitter @tetiyevsky.